Supreme Court Sides With Religion Groups Over Cuomo’s COVID-19 Restrictions
The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish synagogues in Brooklyn and Queens sued New York on Oct. 6 over newly announced COVID-19 attendance limits at houses of worship when their areas were designated red and orange zones. Gov. Andrew Cuomo had announced caps to attendance at 10 and 25 people, respectively.
Since then, the zones of the church and synagogue have been redesignated as yellow zones subject to less-restrictive rules allowing up to 50 percent of a building’s capacity.
The justices split 5-4 to bar the state from enforcing the restrictions against the groups for now, with new Justice Amy Coney Barrett in the majority. It was the Barrett’s first publicly discernible vote as a justice. The court’s three liberal-leaning justices and Chief Justice John Roberts dissented.
The justices acted on an emergency basis while lawsuits challenging the restrictions continued. In an unsigned order, a majority of the court said the restrictions “single out houses of worship for especially harsh treatment.”
The majority opinion (pdf) also said, “There can be no question that the challenged restrictions, if enforced, will cause irreparable harm”, adding that “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”
The move was a shift for the court. Earlier in this year, when Barrett’s liberal-leaning predecessor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was on the court, the justices divided 5-4 to leave in place pandemic-related capacity restrictions affecting churches in California and Nevada.
In the lawsuit, the Diocese of Brooklyn, which covers Brooklyn and Queens, argued houses of worship were being unfairly singled out by the governor’s executive order. It noted that in red zones, businesses deemed “essential,” from grocery stores to pet shops, can remain open without capacity limits, though “non-essential” businesses had to close. And in orange zones, most businesses can open without capacity restrictions.
The diocese argued it had previously operated safely by capping attendance at 25 percent of a building’s capacity and taking other measures.
Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox Jewish organization with synagogues affected by the restrictions, also sued. The organization argued the governor’s restrictions impacted the Orthodox Jewish community in particular.
New York, for its part, told the court that religious gatherings were being treated less restrictively than secular gatherings that carried the same infection risk, like concerts and theatrical performances, which were prohibited entirely but did not address why places of worship were not considered an essential service.
Two lower courts had sided with New York in allowing the restrictions on houses of worship to stand. There are currently several areas statewide designated orange zones but no red zones, according to the state’s website that tracks areas designated hot spots.
By Jessica Gresko. The Epoch Times contributed to this report.